To launch the station’s journey, Les Smith signed on with his show -- Music Appreciation 101. In his college days Smith had been a disc jockey (1969-72) at WJRB, VCU’s radio station. Then he performed the same role (1972-75) at WGOE, the daytime AM station that owned the hippie audience in Richmond for most of the 1970s.
Smith probably had the most on-air experience of the original cast of characters who breathed life into the venture, which was the brainchild of Burt Blackburn. He had been a program director at Virginia Tech’s radio station (1977-79). In Blacksburg the cable TV provider had carried Tech’s station on one of its blank channels. Color Radio's first studio was in Blackburn's Fan District basement. It was linked to Continental’s facility by an ordinary telephone line.
“In June, 1982 [Burt Blackburn] conceived the idea of a ‘radio station’ utilizing one of Continental Cablevision’s empty channels,” wrote Smith in a 2001 remembrance of Channel 36. “He approached Continental’s Virginia marketing manager, Matt Zoller, who liked the idea and encouraged Blackburn to proceed. Zoller himself had been involved in college radio [at William & Mary].”
By the time I came aboard as a disc jokey in October the station had situated its studio on the second floor over The Track, a popular Carytown restaurant (1978-2009) owned by Chris Liles. The studio was made up mostly of secondhand audio equipment acquired by donation or from yard sales.
While all the staff members were volunteers, it was really more like you had to be asked. Donna Parker asked me to come aboard to alternate with her for one shift every other week. Subsequently, my show, “Number 9,” was on the air, I mean cable, for three hours, on alternating Thursday afternoons.
Later, when Donna changed the time for her show, I asked Chuck Wrenn to replace her.
In April of 1983 the studio was moved downtown to the second floor of 7 E. Broad St. As the station had been acquired by the corporation that owned Throttle magazine (1981-1999), the two entities began awkwardly sharing a huge office space over what was then the Neopolitan Gallery (1983-85).
Along the way, I eventually took charge of advertising sales and promotions for the station. The handbill above was for a 1983 fundraiser that I booked into Rockitz, to benefit Color Radio. The headliner, 10,000 Maniacs, was a group out of Jamestown, N.Y. The band had been building a following from its well received appearances at two of the most popular clubs in the Fan, Benny’s and Hard Times. The lead singer was a 19-year-old Natalie Merchant.
A few weeks prior to the live show at Rockitz, I taped an interview with Merchant for my Number 9 program. What follows is the text of the beginning of that 1983 interview; Merchant starts by answering my question about what it was she and her friends in the band were looking to gain from touring and recording their music. Was it all for fun, or did they want to spread some message, or get rich, or what?
With a pleasant mixture of shyness and confidence, she laughed, then dealt with the question.
Merchant: We haven’t yet assumed our adult responsibilities. We don’t have enough income to live away from our parents yet. Sure, I’d like to be independent of my parents. After that, anything … any success that comes, I’ll accept that. I’m not intimidated by the mass media. I think it would be a great tool to reach more people.Later in the interview, I asked Natalie about the name of the band. She said one of the guys took it from a movie, a 1960s low-budget gore fest. Ever the incurable movie expert, I laughed and suggested the actual name of the film was “2,000 Maniacs.”
Rea: Reach them with what?
Merchant: With what we’re saying … with what I’m saying.
Rea: What are you saying?
Merchant: I write the words. Most of what I’m saying is that music should be instructive.
Merchant: It should teach you something, even if it’s just building your vocabulary and making you realize you feel good when you dance. Anything you can learn … I don’t know (she laughs). Probably by the time we can reach more people, I’ll be more sure of what I’m trying to say.
Natalie barely smiled and almost shrugged, as if to say — 10,000 sounds better, so who cares?
Others I interviewed for the Number 9 show included movie director Penelope Spheeris and former adman and WGOE personality, now known as the Pope of Peppers, Dave DeWitt.
We didn’t know it then, but Color Radio was an aspect of the last gasp of the Baby Boomer-driven, live music scene that had been centered in the Fan District for nearly 20 years. That time spanned the sunset of the Beat Era, through the heyday of the hippies, to the last of the punks at the party. As the 1980s wore on Shockoe Bottom became the happening part of town for clubs featuring live music.
At Color Radio, when the microphones were switched on there was no filter. Authorities at Continental Cabelvision seemed unconcerned with what went on. It was wilder than WGOE had been in its rather freewheeling days in the early ’70s, before it got busted by the Federal Communications Commission.
Unlike WGOE, Color Radio had no FCC oversight.
The programming at Color Radio was left totally to the DJs, many of whom were connected to the local live music scene in some way. It was sort of like an offshore pirate station; the ride lasted two years. That nobody got sued or went to jail was amazing.
The format, in unrelated blocks, ranged from Punk to Funk, from Rock to Bach and beyond. Some shows were all talk. There were comedy programs and, yes, sometimes things got raunchy, or weird. What follows is a list of the shows that made up the 92 hours of programming a week that Color Radio offered its listeners in February of 1984.
9 a.m. – 10 a.m.: World Watchers International
10 a.m. – 1 p.m.: World Traditions
1 p.m. – 4 p.m.: Out to Lunch
4 p.m. – 7 p.m.: Kaleidophonic Merry-Go-Sound World
7 p.m. – 10 p.m.: The Bedlam Broadcast
10 p.m. – 1 a.m.: Fontana Mix
1 p.m. – 4 p.m.: Like What You’re Told
4 p.m. – 7 p.m.: The Bubba Show
7 p.m. – 10 p.m.: Hardcore Skate
10 p.m. – 1 a.m.: Mark Mumford
1 p.m. – 4 p.m.: Down on the Collective
4 p.m. – 7 p.m.: Big Music
7 p.m. – 10 p.m.: Heavy Metal for Housewives
10 p.m. – 1 a.m.: Beef Lips Special
1 p.m. – 4 p.m.: Life in the Gladhouse
4 p.m. – 7 p.m.: All My Tapes
7 p.m. – 10 p.m.: Tommy the Rock
10 p.m. – 1 a.m.: Blood Blister, alternating w/ Georgeann
1 a.m. – 2 a.m.: World Watchers International
1 p.m. – 4 p.m.: D-Virg Anti-Fascist Radioshoe
4 p.m. – 7 p.m.: Number 9, alternating w/ Rockin’ Daddy & the Cold Ones
7 p.m. – 10 p.m.: Music Appreciation 101, alternating w/ Test Bands
10 p.m. – 1 a.m.: The Arash Show
1 p.m. – 4 p.m.: Hardcore Skate
4 p.m. – 7 p.m.: The Hiding from Suburbia Show
7 p.m. – 10 p.m.: Hardcore Hour of Power
10 p.m. – 1 a.m.: Down on the Collective
10 a.m. – 1 p.m.: Two-Tone Tony’s Lost Highway
1 p.m. – 4 p.m.: Frontline
4 p.m. – 7 p.m.: Chasin’ the Bird
7 p.m. – 10 p.m.: Music I Like
10 p.m. – 1 a.m.: The Kenny Substitute Show
One of the things Color Radio did, much more so than any other local station, was to support local bands. So low-budget recordings were played and musicians were interviewed. Thus, Color Radio contributed to the feeling there was an authentic scene with a keen awareness of itself. It was a loose scene that orbited tightly around VCU.
Some of the locally-based bands that were heard on/promoted by Color Radio were: Awareness Art Ensemble, Beex, The Bop Cats, The Bowties, Burma Jam, The Dads, Death Piggy, The Degenerate Blind Boys, The Good Guys, The Good Humor Band, The Fabulous Daturas, The Heretics, Honor Role, L’Amour, The Megatonz, The Millionaires, The New York Dux, The Non-Dairy Screamers, The Offenders, The Orthotonics, The Prevaricators, Shake and the Drakes, Single Bullet Theory, Surrender Dorothy, Ten Ten, The Tom and Marty Band, The Toronados, White Cross.